10 Easiest Aspects of: English
(This article is part of an ongoing series that celebrates individual languages)
Every language has several aspects that make it easier for students to learn. While English has many tricky parts, fortunately, it contains some less thorny points.
1) Verbs: English verbs are pretty simple by anyone’s standards, but a walk in the park for speakers of highly inflected languages. Whereas Romance language have hundreds of verb forms for each verb, English gets away with a handful. The most complicated verb in English is the verb to be, which has the following 8 forms: Be, being, been, am, are, is, was, and were. This is the most difficult, but other verbs have around 4 or 5, for example, want: Want, wants, wanting, wanted, That’s it. Also, with fewer tenses and moods than many other languages (such as the imperfect and subjunctive), English verbs are quite manageable.
2) No Agreement with Adjectives: One red car, two red cars; we’ve already discussed how annoying nouns are with their many different suffixes here, but adjectives are very simple. No matter what the adjective, it never changes. Great!
3) Resources: I’ve talked about resources before but in a slightly different context. An abundance of resources really is a game-changer and affects the difficulty of a language in a very real, albeit non-linguistic, way. So, what are you waiting for? Get to a bookshop and enjoy the substantial resources available. If not, lie back and watch a film or show in English. There’s a lot out there!
4) No Obvious Formal Distinction: Vous or tu? Tú or usted? 你 or 您? And that’s not to mention the honorific systems of languages such as Japanese and Korean*. Although English did once have a formal distinction (thou was informal while you was formal- “Where art thou, Romeo?”), we no longer have to struggle with the social awkwardness of grappling with the formality of a given situation**.
5) Phrasal Verbs: Yes, I know what you’re thinking- I already included these in my article 10 Hardest Aspects of: English, and now I’m cheating. Well, I’m having my cake and eating it, too. Phrasal verbs can make life a lot easier for the learner to learn new words as all we need to do in many cases is to attach a preposition to an already familiar word. For example, let’s look at a few phrasal verbs in English and see their equivalents in French:
There are thousands of more examples like this, and it’s not like Latin where one word can mean a million things because of lexical poverty. With English, even though the learner may be initially confused by the core verb (in the above case, run), the addition of a preposition (into, out, over, etc) serves to disambiguate the meaning.
I’d love to hear your opinion on this- are phrasal verbs easy or hard, or somewhere in between?
6) Imperative: Do it! Go! Eat! Nooooow!!!! Before I knew the Chinese translation for imperative, I used to call it an ordering word. This is essentially what it is- an order. The thing is that in many languages we are given different options for precision; exactly who are we ordering and how many? For example, Spanish has 4: Is the person you’re ordering your superior? ("Please look over these figures"; hardly a drill sergeants command, but still an order nevertheless). Maybe a teacher is ordering (asking) the students to open their books - “Open your books”. These orders, or commands, can be annoying if you have to mentally catalogue societal positions as well as the number of people. Imagine if we were drowning:
Drownee: Cripes, I’m drowning! Must ask for help. But wait, who should I ask for help? There are several people there, so I could call out for their help, or I could just concentrate on that one person over there. Is she older than me or younger? I can’t glug glug gl…..
Luckily for people drowning in the English Channel, there is only one command form in English; HELP! I don’t think anyone needs much help with that….
7) International Vocabulary: (This section contains a very brief overview of the history of English)
I love historical linguistics and the history of English doesn’t disappoint for great stories. This gritty, clawing, tenacious language has been ripped, shredded, and violated by so many other languages, but at the same time, it’s imposed similar treatment on its enemies. The result? Not only do we share a small core vocabulary with other languages in the Indo-European language family (pater-father, piscis - fish), we also consumed a number of words from our Roman overlords after Claudius’ invasion in 43 CE (portus - port, candela- candle and, interestingly, castra - camp, which is why we have place names like Manchester, Gloucester, Lancaster, etc). Then, the Germanic Anglo-Saxons brought in many of their words (cū- cow, henn - hen, scēap - sheep). The names of the days of the week mostly come from the names of pagan gods from the Anglo-Saxon world, for example, Thursday for Thor (see this article here for more on this). The Anglo-Saxons also brought many Latin words to English (even though their ancestors were never conquered by the Romans). These words usually related to commerce, such as wine from vinum, and cheese from casus. Next, the Vikings invaded and gave us words like bag, skin, and sky, before the Norman Invasion of 1066 brought a huge amount of Norman French to England. Norman French itself was a Romance language and descended from Latin (imperator - commander, princeps - prince, senior - sir). After those invasions, English began to actively steal (yes, steal) words and from the 15th century on went on a linguistic crusade during the Renaissance and appropriated Greek and Latin words (magnitude, document, etc).
Beyond the world of Eurocentric lexical appropriation, advances in technology, the sciences, political science, and the humanities by Anglophone nations have led to a staggering number of borrowing by a great many languages (despite the reluctance and futile opposition by many). This has all resulted in a huge amount of cross over with the other Germanic and Romance languages, but also a considerable familiarity with English words in languages where English has no right being (salad is shala in Chinese, for example, and business man is bijinesuman in Japanese).
So, whichever language you’re coming from, there is sure to be at least some familiarity with a few English words, if not a lot.
8) English is Everywhere: It’s true, or at least it is in many European countries and East Asia (is it the same in other parts of the world? I’d love to hear in the comments section!). From street signs in Spain to novelty cups in France; from museum signs in China to T-shirts in Japan, it really isn’t hard to find English in non English-speaking countries. However, one must proceed with caution as not all English can be considered “good” English!
9) Capital letters: Granted, the same can be said with many languages, but the fact is that one of the hardest things I find with learning Chinese is that there are no capital letters indicating names. It can really throw you off if you’re reading an advanced text and you get thrown off completely by a new word that ultimately proves to be a name. In English, our names are marked clearly, so it doesn’t matter that you’ve never been to Timbuktu. It’s clearly a place.
10) Definite articles and no Gender: The red car, the red cars. The red rose, the red roses. In Spanish, you’d have to use four different words for THE in the above sentence because nouns in that language are either masculine or feminine. Also, THE must change according to number- that is, how many of the things are we talking about? One rose or two roses? In Greek, it seems there are about a million words for THE, and in Latin, Heaven forbid, there is NO ARTICLE, which makes life almost impossible for all but the most advanced readers. English laughs in the face of such complexity as it only has one definite article. Mwah ha ha.
Conclusion: There are many difficult aspects of English, but just as many qualities that make it more manageable. While no language is easy, the points above may just make life that bit easier for learners of this old Germanic tongue.
What do you think? Are the points mentioned above difficult for you as a learner? Do you find them difficult as a teacher to teach? I’d love to hear your opinions on the subject.
Please share this article if you have found it interesting!
Challenge: Can you find one thing that is easier? If you can, let us know in the comments!
*There is a fascinating resource that English has called conceptual distancing which refers to the elongation of a sentence to adjust to differing degrees of formality. For example, “Close the door!” Versus, “Would you be so kind as to close the door, please?” Obviously, these are two extremes, but they throw light on the idea nicely.
**I once read a study in a sociolinguistics journal about a call to arms by Québécois who insisted that French should drop its pronominal formal distinction. OK, they didn’t actually kill anybody, but you can see how sensitive the issue can become!